Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Fishermen in Arkansas are so impatient to catch Florida-strain largemouth bass — which grow faster, live longer and outweigh our native fish — that they can’t even wait for them to grow up, according to Colton Dennis, the biologist in charge of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s statewide black bass program.
“Just last week an angler e-mailed me and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a tournament on DeGray next summer and heard y’all stocked Florida bass there,'” Dennis recalled. “The inquisitive fisherman wrote, ‘I’d like to bring some back for the tournament weigh-in. What arm of the lake did you stock?'”
Telling the story with a good-natured chuckle, Dennis said that his reply confirmed that the Brushy Creek arm of DeGray does contain a healthy population of Florida bass, but the fish were just fingerlings when they’d been stocked only seven months earlier.
“On DeGray, it takes two years for these fish to even reach 13 inches,” Dennis said, but he appreciated the impatient fisherman’s enthusiasm for catching big bass.
Because interest in bass fishing is at an all-time high, we asked Dennis for a status report on the AGFC’s Florida bass program and a peek into its future. He also explained what the program can and cannot accomplish and gave us a roll call of lakes where you might tangle with a fish that carries those most-wanted genes from the Sunshine State.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
In the 1930s, scientists identified the robust fish that evolved in peninsular Florida as a subspecies of the black bass family. Since then, Florida-strain bass have become an important part of stocking programs throughout the Gulf Coast states, southeastern U.S. and as far west as California.
The attraction is simple. When they’re stocked appropriately, Florida bass “have the ability to grow larger and to also live longer,” Dennis said. “And the anglers want them. The No. 1 sportfish in Arkansas is the largemouth bass, and that’s what our anglers are targeting.”
Big bass also mean big business, with anglers spending hundreds of millions per year to catch Arkansas bass.
“These days, a lot of our anglers travel to Oklahoma or Texas to catch trophy-sized fish,” Dennis said. “But there are places to go in Arkansas to catch them, too, and that’s what we’re trying to provide with our Florida bass program.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In 2002, the AGFC released its second comprehensiveLargemouth Bass Management Plan. It states that “past stocking of Florida-strain largemouth bass . . . has been in large part without guidelines on stocking suitability or follow-up studies to determine survival and impacts on the fishery.”
However, the new plan, combined with a larger staff armed with modern training, equipment and facilities has the agency poised for a more effective approach now.
“We have narrow guidelines about where to stock Floridas because we don’t have millions and millions of them to scatter all over,” Dennis said. “We’re particular about where we stock and try to get the biggest bang for our buck. The first thing (we require) is good forage, good potential for growth. We’re looking for shallower, more productive reser-voirs . . . so the fish have the opportunity to reach their potential.”
Water temperature is also a factor. Floridas survive harsher climates north of Arkansas, but “the warmer the water, the faster the metabolism and the more it’ll eat and the faster it’ll grow,” Dennis explained. “They seem to be doing well where we’ve stocked them so far,” which is primarily in southern and eastern Arkansas. Growth rates between northern- and southern-strain fish are equal until the third year, when Florida genes begin to assert themselves.
Since the state’s early experiments with Florida bass years ago, the Andrew Hulsey State Fish Hatchery on Lake Hamilton has been improved with conservation tax dollars, and the staff has expanded and received countless hours of training — the formal kind and lessons learned by trial and error. The staff now maintains its own pure-bred Florida brood stock and produces each year’s fingerlings from parents in their prime.
District biologists request a half-million Florida fingerlings per year, but the hatchery has produced as many as a million, providing bonus fish that were stocked, used for research or traded to other agencies. Hatchery technicians have also learned to raise Florida bass on pelleted feed, a significant accomplishment that saves money, Dennis said.
AGFC scientists verify fish genetics, general condition, age and growth trends and scour samples for largemouth bass virus and other diseases. Current genetic testing requires tissue samples and sacrificing fish, but the AGFC hopes to soon adopt a newer method that requires only a bit of clipped fin. “We’ve got so many lakes with Florida bass that we’re going to put them on a rotational basis and do complete testing on three or four every year,” Dennis said.
Dennis knows that anglers dream of reservoirs brimming with 10-pounders, but said, “We’re not trying to produce a lake full of pure Floridas. We’re just trying to get that Florida gene, which has many benefits, out there in that population.”
When native northern bass mix with Floridas, the first cross, known as the “F1″ generation, typically shows the full benefits of hybrid vigor: a largemouth that can grow larger in its native Arkansas habitat. Studies show that subsequent generations — known as “Fx” — display the positive Florida traits even as the occurrence of Florida genes gradually declines.
“It’s still a better fish than your northern, with its potential to get bigger and live longer,” Dennis said.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
For all their good traits, Floridas aren’t perfect. For example, they’re an expensive commitment.
“With the northern bass, we can go out in the wild and get broodstock,” Dennis explained. “But with the Floridas, we’ve got to keep them on station (in hatchery ponds), and all of our fish get genetically tested every year to make sure we maintain pure Florida bass. And then there’s feeding those rascals all year!”
Dennis, like many biologists and anglers, believes they’re harder to catch. Because Floridas grow aggressively, you’d assume they eat the same w
ay, but they’re wallflowers at nature’s buffet compared to northern bass. For example, Texas researchers repeatedly caught captive, northern largemouths on a specific lure, but in a nearby pond, Floridas quickly learned to ignore it. Texas hatchery workers also observed that adding forage fish to holding tanks full of northern bass caused feeding sprees that ended only when the last baitfish was gone. Under the same conditions, Florida bass took three days to finish off the baitfish.
“In some cases, (fisheries managers in Texas) are reverting back to northerns because of angler complaints that Floridas are harder to catch,” Dennis said. “Being a little harder to catch may be one of the tradeoffs that allows them to get older and grow bigger.” So far, no one in Arkansas has complained about adding Florida bass to the mix.
THE DEGRAY EXPERIMENT
The AGFC’s boldest Florida bass action to date is the eight-year plan for stocking part of Lake DeGray. The project began in June 2006 with more than 170,000 Florida fingerlings, and the AGFC intends to stock the 900-acre Brushy Creek arm with at least 90,000 Florida bass per year until at least 2013.
Deep, clear, and rocky reservoirs such as DeGray are the antithesis of the shallow, fertile and highly vegetated lakes where Floridas thrive.
“However, some of the research shows you can possibly impact a larger system like our highland reservoirs if you stock a creek arm that’s really productive and has good habitat,” Dennis said. “Instead of stocking the whole lake, you stock that one arm heavily to impact it with the Florida genes, and they’ll eventually spread throughout the lake.”
DeGray was chosen for this experiment because it’s the Corps’ smallest and southernmost Arkansas reservoir and features ample aquatic vegetation.
“It’s going to take two or three years for them to reproduce, and then another couple of years before we can follow those offspring with genetics work,” Dennis said. “It’ll take at least eight years before we can tell whether we’re making a difference.” Annual follow up studies will compare samples from the stocked area and throughout the lake with the genes of pre-stocking samples.
It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but harvesting Florida-strain bass is an important part of building trophy fisheries.
“We encourage harvest below and above the slot — especially below the slot to thin off young fish so the remaining fish can grow into it,” Dennis said. “The catch-and-release philosophy has caught on so much that in some lakes, it doesn’t matter what regulation we have. We don’t always have the harvest we need to manage that population.”
Slot limits protect bass during prime reproductive years so they can replenish fisheries.
“The regulations are there to direct the harvest to fish of specific sizes and to improve the population as a whole. They’re spawning every year, and you’ve gotta make room for more,” Dennis said.
FLORIDA BASS LAKES
This 752-acre Pope County reservoir is one of ournorthernmost Florida bass fisheries, and Dennis believes it’ll become one of our best in a few years. It’s bounded by state highways 324 and 105, which run off Interstate 40, and offers eight AGFC-maintained public accesses. After the lake was renovated in 2002 and restocked with Floridas, they reached 13 to 14 inches long in only 18 months. You must release all largemouths in the 16- to 21-inch slot. The daily limit is four, with only one over 21 inches.
Deep in southwest Arkansas, this 650-acre Hempstead County lake features generous cover and forage for a growing Florida bass population. Access it from roads off state Highway 355 in the Bois D’Arc Wildlife Management Area. Bass fishing here is strictly catch-and-release. Shorebound fishermen can walk four and a half miles of levees and a bank-fishing peninsula near the ramp on the east side of the lake, south of Highway 355. Turn north off 355 to reach the other ramp. With Atkins, this lake tops Dennis’s list of up-and-coming trophy fisheries.
This 3,000-acre AGFC lake in Columbia County has been a trophy destination for years, producing 10- to 11-pound lunkers every year. Although it needs more study, Dennis believes Floridas have made a distinct difference here. The daily largemouth limit is eight, but only three may exceed 18 inches. All fish in the 16- to 18-inch slot must be released. It’s safe to eat bass under 16 inches, but mercury in larger fish may endanger some consumers.
This 7,100-acre reservoir rambles along the eastern edge of the Lafayette County WMA, where the AGFC and International Paper Co. share management duties. At press time, AGFC fish pathologists were awaiting test results to determine whether Florida bass stocked in the early 1980s continue to exert any genetic influence, said biologist Les Claybrook. Last year, Erling received 150,000 Florida fingerlings and will have annual stockings and monitoring for several years. The statewide limit of 10 largemouths per day prevails here.
Lower White Oak
The 1,645-acre lower section of White Oak Lake near Camden proved it could grow bucketmouths that threaten the 10-pound mark many years ago, and the introduction of Florida bass has probably made a great lake even better. The 1,031-acre upper lake, just across state Highway 387, is certainly respectable, but trophies come from the lower lake. Release all bass in the 16- to 18-inch slot; the daily limit is eight bass, and you may keep three over 18 inches.
This 320-acre reservoir in Brinkley received a new crop of 4,500 5- to 8-inch Florida bass last year, and they need some time to grow up. All bass must be released immediately. Some remnants from Floridas stocked years ago may also remain, but don’t go there counting on them. Access is off U.S. 70 or state Highway 238.
Largemouths thrive in this 29,000-acre southwest Arkansas lake operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and stocked by the AGFC. Millwood is nine miles east of Ashdown and sits atop the Sevier, Little River, Howard and Hempstead county lines. The AGFC, Corps and state Parks Department operate at least nine public accesses. The daily limit is three bass; all largemouths under 16 inches must be released.
The 1997 opening of Lake Monticello seemed to represent the pieces of a perfect puzzle: a new water-supply lake in southeast Arkansas stocked with an ideal mix of Florida largemouths, baitfish, catfish and sunfishes. It quickly became our top trophy bass lake. Dennis said the number of 5-pounders here is “just amazing.” Access is off state Highway 35 or Campground Road off U.S. Highway 425. The slot is 16 to 21 inches, with a four-fish daily limit. You may keep only one over 21 inches, and beware of mercury in large fish.
Warm water from Flint Creek Power Plant ensures a long growing season for Lake SWEPCO’s bass, making it an ideal outpost for Florida bass despite its location in northwest
Arkansas. Also known as Flint Creek Lake, the reservoir is just west of Gentry, bounded by U.S. Highway 59 and state highways 12 and 43. A recent crash in baitfish and bass populations that led to an overabundance of skinny largemouths prompted the AGFC to toss the old catch-and-release rule and allow anglers to keep ten bass daily (only one may exceed 18 inches).
LAKES WITH A
Four other lakes have southern-strain bass connections, but Dennis doesn’t yet consider them serious Florida bass fisheries. Past stocking at Lake Chicot (near Lake Village) and Conway (in south-central Faulkner County) has “been hit and miss,” he said. Lake June (in Stamps in Lafayette County) and Rick Evans/Grandview Prairie WMA Lake #1 (in its namesake WMA near Columbus) were stocked with pellet-eating bass for research rather than trophies in 2004. These small lakes are ideal for verifying survival rates, age and growth data and the influence of Florida genes on an existing bass population.
STAY HOPEFUL, PATIENT
Lakes Millwood and Monticello show the most improvement from infusions of Florida bass, Dennis said.
“They’re two places right now where you can go and have a good chance of catching a big fish.”
He also recommends Columbia and White Oak and sees Atkins and Bois D’Arc as the hotspots in our future. He also has high hopes for DeGray.
Although future stocking decisions will occur “on a lake-by-lake basis, year-to-year,” Dennis predicts that the AGFC’s program will gradually grow to include more lakes. He also encouraged us to remember, “We can stock ‘em in just one day, but to get a trophy fish, it takes time. Floridas grow faster and have the potential to grow bigger, but it still takes eight to 10 years to get up to real trophy size.”
We can hardly wait. What about you?